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Policing: A Commodity To Be Bought And Sold?

3 Mar

Government plans to privatise huge elements of police work indicate a decisive shift to private provision within the criminal justice system. Is community safety a commodity to be bought and sold?

We are now closer to large scale privatisation of policing than ever before. The Guardian has revealed that West Midlands and Surrey police (two of the biggest forces in England) have offered a contract worth £1.5bn over 7 years, which will allow private firms to investigate crime, to detain suspects and to patrol the streets.

Should other forces become involved, the figure for the contract may rise as £3.5bn. This indicates that the previous £200m deal made by G4S and Lincolnshire police to run a police station look like the tip of the iceberg.

West Midlands police also contracted out some of its anti-terror operations to G4S, but this again pales into insignificance compared to the proposed scale of privatisation in the West Midlands and Surrey forces.

This is clearly a sea-change in the shift to private provision within the criminal justice system. The West Midlands and Surrey  forces (two of the biggest in England) have invited bids from private companies, including  G4S, to deliver a range of services previously undertaken by the police.

The Guardian has had sight of a  26-page “commercial in confidence” contract note sent to potential bidders to run all policing services that “can be legally delegated to the private sector” (i.e. excluding the power of arrest). The anticipated start date for delivery of these new privatised services is thought to be in February 2013.

Home Secretary Theresa May told the  Conservative Party conference in October 2011:

“We’re also going to help police by making sure that as we reduce budgets, we cut waste, not frontline services… there is no reason at all why frontline police services should not be maintained and improved.”

It is now becoming clear that what she meant: increasing private provision in policing, in addition to the biggest cuts in police numbers in a decade.

What might privatisation involve in practice? As early as next spring, we might expect to see private companies running a range of police activities, including the investigation of crimes, the dentention of suspects, the management of high risk offenders, the investigations of incidents, the support of both witnesses and victims, the support of both victims and witnesses, and the street-level patrol of individual localities.

Surrey Chief Constable Lynne Owens is quoted by the BBC as denying that there will be privatised street patrols:

“Any suggestion that a private sector company will patrol the streets of Surrey is simply nonsense. It would be no more acceptable to the public than it would be to me.”

However, the Guardian has published a extract from contract note for potential bidders for police services, which explicitly states the activities that a private sector company will undertake can include

“manage public engagement – patrol neighbourhoods”.

The Association of Chief Police Officers lead for workforce development, Chief Constable Peter Fahy, placed the privatisation moves in an economic context, observing that chief constables could not ignore the backdrop of the financial crisis. He indicated that other police forces nationally would be carefully observing the results of the tendering process:

“Police forces face an enormous challenge, particularly when you look at the cuts in the financial year 2013/14 and beyond. It is clear that only radical and fundamental change will allow forces to cope with this and maintain protection of the public. Politicians and the public have made it clear that they will not allow forces to merge and so economies of scale and efficiencies have to be sought elsewhere.”

Private security staff already manage major public events licensed by local authorities, for example, or monitor CCTV covering public space. In addition, privately employed store detectives currently detain shoplifters. In ACPO’s view, some policing functions could be undertaken by private companies:

“The office of constable and the discretion and independence of the police officer is a fundamental safeguard for the public but does not mean that others cannot take up functions which help protect the public and bring offenders to justice.”

From ACPO’s perspective, there are some tasks in a criminal investigation, such as gathering CCTV evidence or checking phone records, which do not necessarily need to be done by a police officer, and Fahy offers the reassurance that

“the investigation itself would always be overseen by a police officer in much the same way as a doctor oversees treatment of a patient although other healthcare professionals carry out particular tasks.”

Policing is already privatised in many areas of the USA. Proponents of privatisation in America have argued that it brings down costs, while simultaneously giving detection rates a boost. The justification for privatisation is laid bare by research by the Policy Exchange think tank (a favourite resource of the government).

While privatisation will arguably neither increase accountability nor raise performance, what it will achieve is the the maximisation of shareholder profit and ensure a small number of individuals become very rich. The loser may be social justice and community accountability.

The Policy Exchange (a favourite government think tank) have pointed to the increasing cost of the police, and argue that policing in England and Wales is among the most costly in the industrialised world. To support this assertion, they argue that UK police expenditure in 2010 cost more than that in the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Under the heading ‘Inefficient Police Workforce‘, the Policy Exchange concludes that the case for an increased number of police officers is ultimately unconvincing, as it is rooted in the what they view as the “flawed” assumption that “more police officers mean more officers available to fight crime through performing front line, warranted roles.”

From the perspective of the Policy Exchange, the police service continues to be “monolithic – growing in size but not become more flexible or efficient with its staff. With respect to the police’s primary investment – its own people – this has led to a service with a large amount of wasted assets”.

Opposing voices come from shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and Unison official Ben Priestley. Cooper responded to the Guardian’s report by noting that the police had confirmed

“They are pursuing these contracts as a result of the financial pressures they face. Yet the possibility of including the management of high-risk individuals, patrolling public places or pursuing criminal investigations in large private-sector contracts rather than core professional policing raises very serious concerns. It is fundamental to British policing that it has the trust of the people. That means policing decisions are impartial, in the interests of justice, stopping crime and catching criminals.”

Priestly concludes that privatisation will have the inevitable result of making the police less accountable to the public:

“Bringing the private sector into policing is a dangerous experiment with local safety and taxpayers’ money. We are urging police authorities not to fall into the trap of thinking the private sector is the answer to the coalition’s cuts.”

Police Federation vice-chairman Simon Reed also voiced his opposition to the cuts:

“This is an extremely dangerous road to take. The priority of private companies within policing will be profit and not people… This would have catastrophic consequences for the high level of service the public rightly expect and currently receive.”

A frontline policing perspective is provided by police blogger the custody record:

“Policing is a NOT FOR PROFIT organisation. We cannot outsource such work to private companies. They are not interested in policing. They are not interested in community safety. They are interested in bottom line profit returns and happy shareholders… corners will be cut, standards will be lowered and the people who will ultimately suffer are you.. the public and the officers out on the streets.”

These views notwithstanding, private provision of policing in the West Midlands and Surrey at least, will take a huge leap forward by this time next year. With the tectonic plates shifting in favour of privatisation within the criminal justice system with both policing and prisons, can the probation service now be far behind?

The Conservative/Liberal democratic coaltion government emphasises the centrality of markets and market processes.  The government is both ideologically inclined to, and strongly supportive of, privatisation.

We should hardly be surprised that competition for the running of police, prison and probation services may become an inevitable part of this process of wholesale marketisation.

Portaits of Prisoners: 1902-1904

19 Feb

These fascinating and poignant images of prisoners, with their crime chalked on the boards which they made required to hold for the photograph. All were all brought before the North Shields Police Court (in the north-east of England) between 1902 and 1904.

By the 1870s, the courts and the Home Offices regarded photographing those who came before the courts as essential. They aimed to assembled detailed records of offenders.

Both police forces and prison authorities began taking photographs of offenders in an organised and structured way. Photos were usually taken before a prisoner was tried as they could then be used to identify offenders who had committed previous crimes.

The offenders pictured were typically people living lives of pressured poverty and harshness. It is poignant to realise that when we look at these photos, we may be gazing at the only photographs ever taken of the individuals portrayed in their whole lifetimes.

The photographs are selected from an album of photographs of prisoners in the collection of Tyne & Wear Archives. The photos are used courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Alfred Thompson, arrested for larceny on 31st August 1902.

Charlotte Branney, arrested for larceny on 5th January, 1904.

James Dawson, arrested for indecent exposure on 9th June, 1902.

Jane Thompson, also known as Gordon, arrested for theft on 13th July, 1904

Mustapha Irola, arrested for false pretences on August 19th, 1904.

Mary Scott Wilson, arrested for larceny on 14th December, 1903.

Andrea Laudano, arrested for larceny on 21st July, 1904.

Alice Caush, arrested for larceny on 31st October, 1903.

Inspector Gadget And The Politics Of Gender

18 Feb

“The Maddest Diversity Nonsense Ever”

Women make up 51% of the overall population in England and Wales. However, women’s representation in the major agencies which constitute the criminal justice system varies.

In the Crown Prosecution Service, for example, women represented 66% all staff on 31 March 2010. The Magistracy comprised 51% women in 2009/10. Women were just over 12% of senior judges. Data for the Probation Service indicate that women represented 71% of probation staff in 2009.

In policing, however, women are under-represented. They comprise just 26% of the 143,734 police officers in post (based on full-time equivalent posts) in 2009/10. At senior ranks, it was rarer still to find women officers. Only 13% of senior police officers were female.

Frances Heidensohn,  in her chapter on Gender and Policing in the ‘Handbook of Policing’ edited by Tim Newburn, argued that the police have had a clear awareness of gender, though it is understood in an explicit male way. She summarised police attitudes by pointing to the “world of old fashioned machismo” within which they function.

Old fashioned machismo notwithstanding, one might be forgiven for expecting rational human beings interested in equality to be concerned about any situation where women were not equally represented in the workforce. This is the concern that was articulated by Denise Milani, Director of the Diversity and Citizen Focus Directorate in London’s Metropolitan Police Service.

Earlier this week, she informed staff that she was “keen to learn staff views on the progress the MPS has made around gender equality”. To mark International Women’s Day 2012, she invited officers and police staff to be creative and record their views in verse.

Poems had to focus on the themes of recruitment, retention and progression in the MPS; creating a gender sensitive working environment; or successfully managing gender diverse teams. They had to provide the DCFD director with insight on the progress made with the ‘Gender Agenda’ and a offer a positive future vision for the MPS.

This poetry competition clearly aimed to sharpen the focus on the dynamics of gender within the Met. Responses have been illuminating, and show the depth of cultural resistance to gender equality within the Met. This has been well illustrated by the outpouring of neanderthal masculinity that has surfaced on Inspector Gadget’s blog.

The Inspector’s blog has been offering its subversive take on modern policing for 6 years. Gadget is thought to be a serving inspector in a southern English force, which he calls  “Ruralshire” in the blog. His Twitter profile accurately describes him as dispensing “weapons grade cynicism” and he claims (with some justification in terms of the blog traffic statistics) the title of “Britain’s most widely-read police Blogger”.

Gadget’s blog notes that it has chalked up almost 9 million hits, which suggests that his acerbic observations resonate with a very wide audience. His blog, he notes online, received the accolade of being  named one of Britain’s Top 40 blogs by The Times, who noted that his writing was ‘provocative stuff, and as an insight into life on the policing front line in 2010, it’s invaluable’.

Gadget cheerfully labels Milani’s poetry initiative as a “piece of utter nonsense”, while simultaneously acknowledging:

“I love this kind of stuff. It lends such credibility to my claims that senior officers are all mad, and they have completely forgotten what policing is all about.”

His comments do not quite amount to an admission that he hankers for a return to the days when police officers were men and women knew their place, but he is not far from saying so. He positions himself as a realist, unburdened with politically correct notions of diversity which in Gadget’s world appear to be a gross irrelevance in terms of the daily lived experience of police officers.

“I particularly like reading internal communications like this when I have just come in from a 10 hour marathon shift during which the local drunken yobs have been trying to give us a good kicking, or if we have been dealing with a fatal road crash.”

Alternatively, as that great paper of record, the Daily Mail, observes, “It’s enough to make the hard men of the Sweeney choke on their cigars and double whiskies.”

More than 500 comments have been added to Gadget’s blog in a short period. Clearly his views resonate with many. Stereotypical attitudes towards gender are given free rein.  Some of the all-too-predictable comments made included these:

From Jeremy Beadles Withered Hand comes the assertion that diversity initiatives are a kind of smokescreen for gay women to gain preferment: “A WPC friend of mine got invited to a similar women in policing conference and told me that in actual fact it was literally just a meeting for butch, man-hating lesbians to talk about how much they hate men and how they can use their sexuality to get promoted, and then tried it on with her.”

What these critiques of gender equality initiatives may lack in subtlety, nuance and reflection, they make up for in their strength of emotion. Two of the milder examples are from Taff Taff and Bobby.

From Taff Taff: “Anyone who seriously takes part in this competition is a twat who needs to be put into a a rocket and fired into the sun, I am sick of this type of shit.”

From Bobby: “That beggars belief. I am stunned at that. What a pile of shite. Walks off shaking head.”

The comments would have been incomplete without a man indignantly asserting that it is, of course, men who are the real victims of discrimination within the police.  An example from the many who make this assertion comes from Pathe: “No real research has been carried out into how men are discriminated against in the Police”.

Inspector Gadget adds a coda to his orginal comments: “I have just read the post again. I can categorically say that this is the maddest diversity nonsense we have ever featured on this Blog…  I would like to hear from more female officers to see what they think of this, in between making tea for the lads of course!”

The police have made considerable strides in the past two decades on the way in which crimes such as sexual abuse and domestic violence are policed. Even so, the response to Gadget’s blog suggests that the dawn of gender equality appears to be some way off. It clearly remains a live issue. There are a range of entrenched views and a cultural reluctance to acknowledge diversity as an issue.

Anyone who remembers Roger Graef’s classic ‘Talking Blues’ on police canteeen culture may conclude that, if supporting gender equality amounts to “the maddest diversity nonsense”, then two decades down the line from Graef’s original account, not a great deal has changed.